Monday, September 30, 2013

150th blog special! Spider-Man: The Death of Gwen Stacy

Hard to believe it, but this blog is hitting its 150th installment just a couple of weeks after the much older MMA blog.

As a celebration of this occasion, I want to talk about the comic I consider to be the most influential story in comic history: Spider-Man, The Death of Gwen Stacy.

The two issues that make up this arc are Amazing Spider-Man #121 ("The Night Gwen Stacy Died") and #122 ("The Goblin's Last Stand"). The trade paperback Marvel has most recently issued also showcases ASM #96-98 and "The Kiss" from 1999's Webspinners: Tales of Spider-Man #1.

I actually like that they added the previous arc, as it allows for full backstory on the situation. "The Kiss" isn't necessary, and it's the only part not written by Stan Lee, but it adds depth and is pretty good, I suppose.

But as for my qualitative discussion, that will be available in the audio blog above. I'm mostly talking about Gwen Stacy and what this arc ultimately meant for Spider-Man and comics in general.

A lot of people nowadays only remember Mary Jane Watson and think of Gwen Stacy, if they know her at all, as the one girl who died. Maybe that's the reason I liked Amazing Spider-Man the movie so much: It's the first time her importance is really shown.

Gwen was, by all measures at the time of her writing, Peter's soulmate. Her death was the original "Deal with Mephisto" for a lot of fans who were reading at the time. Subscriptions were canceled and anger was abundant.

The main reason this story is still given weight, however, is that it was lasting. Gwen never came back. She's been cloned, seen in dream sequences, portrayed in alternate universes and even zombified, but she's never returned to the Earth-616 canon since this arc finished being produced. (At least in no stories I've seen.)

Gwen Stacy is one of those few deaths that serves as a crux for so much of a character's psychology. Peter Parker had never been in a position to save somebody, attempted it and failed to save the person. The fact that it was the woman he planned to marry only hits him harder.

It changed why he protects his identity. Originally, he hid it so that his aunt wouldn't constantly worry, but now he saw his identity as a possible death sentence for those around him. That all happened in this arc.

The same can be said for Mary Jane Watson. One of the reasons I argue Gwen was Peter's true soulmate at the time of publication is because MJ, for all her underlying sadness, was ultimately a home-wrecker. She went on a date with Peter, latched onto his best friend, and constantly flirted with him even when she had Harry Osborn right in front of her.

Peter treated her as a friend, but they were not a good match. Two things changed MJ, though. One was Harry becoming a drug addicted schizophrenic (which she did not help with the constant flirting with Peter), and the other was her best friend's death.

Mary Jane was a more understanding person from here. I love the Peter-MJ romance as much as any Spidey fan, but I also recognize that it's only possible directly because of Gwen's death.

As for the comics world as a whole, this was a game-changer. Most will say this story ended the Silver Age of Comics, but that is far too simple of an explanation.

This was the story that really showed that these characters had an emotional connection with fans. It showed that the stories could be taken seriously and that a high-level narrative could be told solely through sequential art.

Many people point to Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns as the books that showed what comics were capable of, but I don't think any of them would have been in a place to get published had this moment not taken place.

It's ironic that this story is such a moment in comics history considering its whole existence came about because the Marvel editors didn't want Peter Parker to get married (A problem that has clearly plagued the character since his inception up through today).

They had more single Peter stories to tell, and had no idea what to do. Common sense would dictate the two go on a break for a few years, but I guess they didn't want a character just floating around that they weren't using.

But as much as I enjoyed Gwen Stacy stories, and as much as I'd like to see an alternate Marvel book where the two are married, even I must admit that this decision has done unbelievable amounts of good for the comic book industry.

Gwen's death scene has been parodied and re-enacted in copious comics, both Spidey and non-Spidey; the first Spider-Man movie re-enacted it with MJ (as well as Goblin's death from #122); and it's almost a given for one of the new Spider-Man movies.

The influence of this arc is undeniable, and I thought I'd share my interpretation of it today. As we move closer to the ASM 2 movie, let's not forget why the director insisted on having Gwen Stacy in the story.

RIP Gwen.
ASM #31 (Dec. 1965)-ASM #121 (June 1973)

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